Misinformation drives students' environmental gloom and doom
By Jane S. Shaw
Sunday, January 02, 2005 - Too often, environmental teaching takes the
form of fearful and gloomy messages, presented to children as early as
kindergarten or even preschool. It's a disturbing trend with
potentially devastating ramifications.
In 1994, Nancy Bray Cardozo, writing in Audubon magazine, shared her
uneasiness about children's environmental education. Her 6-year-old
daughter had received a hand-me-down bed from an aunt, and she was
about to sleep in it for the first time. Cardozo noticed that
something was bothering her daughter, and she asked what it was. The
little girl told her, "They killed trees to make my bed.'
The gloom and anxiety often overshadow the facts. Students become
alarmed about toxic waste, acid rain, deforestation and global
warming, without ever learning basic scientific facts about these
Environmental education became popular in the 1990s, when global
warming and species extinction issues reached fever pitch. Parents
noticed their children coming home with strange ideas about the
natural world. Adults were condemned for normal things like having a
job as a logger, or driving cars.
One parent wrote to The New York Times, "I have noticed a disturbing
trend. With each passing school year, my children are more convinced
that humans and technology are bad for the planet.'
Observations like these prompted Michael Sanera and me to review high
school textbooks covering history, biology, civics and environmental
science to examine how they dealt with environmental issues. What we
found led to our book "Facts, Not Fear.'
The misinformation was astounding. For example, to illustrate the
dangers of global warming, several textbooks publish pictures of how
flooded cities might look if the ice caps melted including drawings of
New York with all but the tallest buildings submerged. Actually,
scientists anticipate that global warming might lift sea levels by
between 6 and 40 inches not hundreds of feet.
Other textbooks have graphs showing world population climbing
inexorably upward. In fact, population growth rates have been
declining since the mid- 1960s, and most demographers expect the
world's population to level in about 50 years.
When it comes to forests, young people receive images of severe
devastation in the United States. "Large areas of forest also have
been wasted,' says "Biology: Living Systems' (Oram, 1989), implying
that cutting trees to build houses or make paper was a waste of
"Environmental Science: Framework for Decision Making' (Chiras, 1988)
reports: "Commercial interests in the United States took an especially
narrow view of the forests until after World War II, seeking monetary
gain with little concern for the future.'
Rarely do students learn the economic realities of sustaining forests,
or that until the early 1900s abundant wood and low timber prices made
replanting trees a losing business proposition, or that even Gifford
Pinchot, the famed first director of the Forest Service, was unable to
make any money planting trees when he managed timber in North
Jim Bowyer, a professor of forest products at the University of
Minnesota, became concerned about student attitudes when he taught a
course called "Natural Resources as Raw Materials.' Some students were
overtly hostile to forestry and he tried to find out why. So, he
developed a survey on forestry and related environmental issues in the
late 1990s that was taken by more than 2,000 students at 11
universities in the United States.
The results were troubling. Seventy-three percent of the students
believed: "At current rates of deforestation, 40 percent of the
current forests in the United States will be lost by the middle of the
In fact, the forested area of the United States has been stable since
1920 and more timber is grown than is cut every year. Seventy-two
percent of the students thought that populations of elk, pronghorn
antelope and wild turkey have declined in the past 50 years. Truth is,
they have increased dramatically.
What bothered Bowyer most was a comment made in a classroom. He had
asked the students how old a tree lives on average. Some thought
several thousand years others "until the tree is cut down.' In other
words, some thought that trees could live forever.
As Bowyer discovered, students are not simply uninformed they are
misinformed in one direction. They are led to think that our natural
resources, including our forests, are in danger of elimination.
Not all of the misunderstanding comes from the classroom, of course.
Print and television media are steeped with exaggerated claims,
ranging from the perils of overpopulation to claims of cancer caused
by toxic waste. These exaggerations have crept into the schools.
Addressing this problem is complex. Better environmental science is
one answer but who will teach it? What texts will they use? A study by
the Independent Commission on Environmental Education (now the
Environmental Literacy Council) concluded: "Many high- school
environmental-science textbooks have serious flaws. Some provide
superficial coverage of science. Others mix science with advocacy.'
Perhaps instead of "environmental science,' we should just teach science.
Jane S. Shaw is a senior fellow at the Property and Environment
Research Center, a nonprofit institute in Bozeman, Mont., dedicated to